Some movies grab you at the start and then just sort of flatten out, unable to continue with the momentum of the opening. Those movies can be good, but can also leave you wanting. Then there are other movies, movies which grab you and—pardon the cliché—never let go. Those movies are the great ones, the ones that deserve recognition. Already the winner of a number of awards this season (and lacking an Academy Award nomination for Director which it undoubtedly deserves), 2012’s Argo is one of this second set of films.
Taking place in late 1979 and early 1980, Argo is the based-on-a-true story of the rescue of six members of the U.S. Consulate in Iran. The film opens by offering up background on the situation and regularly intersperses actual news reports from the time with the (semi) fictionalized scenes to ratchet up the realism quotient. Argo may go a little over-the-top, and into the realm of apparent fiction, during the final escape scene, but before that it is simply stupendous.
The film stars Ben Affleck, who also directed the movie, as Tony Mendez, a CIA exfiltration expert who is tasked with getting the sis escapees out of the Canadian ambassador’s home where they are currently hiding from Iranian revolutionaries. Mendez comes up with the utterly ridiculous notion of pretending that he, along with the house guests, are in Iran scouting locations for a science fiction movie, Argo. To this end he enlists a semi-regular CIA contact in Hollywood, John Chambers (John Goodman) and movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Together, they set up a fake production company and convince everyone, including Hollywood, that the fake movie is real.
One of the things that truly impresses about the film is that while it portrays the revolutionaries in Iran as scary, fanatical, and over the top, it also makes it quite clear that the United States is, at least in part, at fault for the ascendancy of Ayatollah Khomeini by removing the democratically elected leader and replacing him with a dictator. While unquestionably Mendez is the hero of the piece, blame for the house guests ending up in their predicament abounds. The Canadians are the only country in the film who escape said blame, and they do so because they are only truly depicted in the form of the Ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), and his wife, Pat (Page Leong), who stick their neck out by allowing the consulate escapees to stay with them. Put another way, individuals in the film are triumphant and heroic, governments far less so.
Outside of conveying the story exceptionally well, the other main way in which Affleck succeeds here as a director is with what he gets out of his cast. Arkin, Garber, Goodman, Tate Donovan, Bryan Cranston, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Kyle Chandler, and everyone else in the film offer up great performances. Whether they are on screen for a minute, as in the case of Kind, or repeatedly like Arkin and Goodman, they are engaging and exciting to watch.
Affleck’s film (we’re going with auteur theory here) takes a “truth is stranger than fiction” story and puts it up there on screen to be marveled at by everyone. The credit goes to the actors, to Chris Terrio for his screenplay, to producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, to Rodrigo Prieto’s great cinematography, editing by William Goldenberg, and to Affleck for putting it all together while also portraying the lead. Again, the final moments of the house guests’ escape are somewhat overly dramatic, but everything to that point works so well that it is forgivable, and as the leader of the circus, Affleck deserves all the credit he has gotten and more.
The film hits Blu-ray in absolutely gorgeous fashion, highlighting Prieto’s cinematography. Different looks and feels are given to the various locales, with Tehran offering up warmer tones than CIA headquarters and more of an up-close handheld feel as well. The detail level is high throughout as seen in every stray hair on Affleck’s head (and everyone else’s, this is the late ’70s – early ’80s after all). The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track works brilliantly in conjunction with the visuals. This is a tension-filled movie, and while everything depicted is done so in realistic fashion, the sound design exhibits a level of heightened realism, but does so in service of the rest of the movie. Visa stamps on passports are issued with a nearly Last Crusade-style ker-thunk. Little noises in tense moments are made big, but not to the point where they pull the viewer out, only to add an exclamation point to the scene. All of this auditory detail and a whole lot more is present on the Blu-ray and shows just why the film is up for two Academy Awards for sound (mixing and editing).
The bonus features offer up exactly what they should – not only telling us how the film was made, but also the truth behind the story. There is an audio commentary, a picture-in-picture one, and several featurettes. As with the film itself and its jumping from location to location (Hollywood, CIA Headquarters, Iran) in order to tell its full tale, the featurettes function in the exact same fashion – they all offer up a piece of the puzzle which, when combined, is greater than the sum of the parts. A DVD and UltraViolet copy are included with the Blu-ray. The one place the release really goes astray is by not offering up an iTunes copy as well.
I hate being overly enthusiastic about these things, but the truth, simply, is this – Argo is a great film and one which deserves all the accolades it has received this awards season. Ben Affleck’s not being nominated for an Oscar is an unfortunate oversight by the Academy. Happily though, as a producer on the film, should Argo take home the Academy Award for Best Picture this coming weekend, Affleck will receive a statuette for his work.